The Source of All Good/Evil?
I follow the Open Source movement pretty closely, though I usually don’t talk about it here. There’s a lot about it that fascinates me. Most of it involves a simple question: how can a group of smart technologists make a pile of money for themselves, advance an industry so far, and yet still be so utterly clueless about business?
Witness this Register post. A small OSS company, TurboHercules SAS, built a mainframe emulator as part of a disaster recovery software product. The maker of the Z-series mainframes, IBM, lawyered-up and invoked a fairly long list of patents that could potentially be infringed. Here’s the catch:
He claimed that the list includes two of the US patents (5613086 and 5220669) which were among the 500 patents IBM pledged not to use against the open source community.
“This is so appalling that I felt compelled to show to the FOSS community what IBM is doing: IBM is using patent warfare in order to protect its highly lucrative mainframe monopoly against Free and Open Source Software.”
Years ago, IBM saw black gold in the OSS tar pit and struck peace with the major Linux vendors by agreeing not to enforce a series of patents where they applied to Open Source. In general, a decision to forego patent protection generally diminishes the patent in any future court case, and it tends to let the information flow freely. So why give up a piece of intellectual property? Well, as the strategist would say, follow the money.
IBM’s Software Group is a major revenue source for the company. Not only do they sell a pile of mainframe software — the linked story says $25B annually as a estimate — they also sell for mainline servers, other high-end server architectures, and they even provide open source products for many areas. The service and support they sell on these and other items makes up for any potential revenue loss on giving the software away “for free” to the customer base.
So IBM struck a deal years ago with the fledgling Linux community that it would provide base software intelligence knowing that they’d make it back in piles as they proliferated the open-source work. But you shouldn’t assume that this benevolence extends to also potentially losing a lot of money if someone tries to take this the wrong way.
As an observer, this is where I usually wonder at the innocence of OSS providers. Many of them want to do the same as IBM: create software and sell a service contract to pay for the development. That’s fine, but they’re still using others’ smarts to do that work, and occasionally that will come back if they bite the hands that feed them. I expect that this will get quietly resolved – as do most of these disputes when they crop up — but I don’t expect it to ever end.